02 September – 09 September 2022
Our trip to Yellowstone was planned in March, originally for May, but we decided to postpone the adventure because we needed far more time to appropriately prepare for the journey, the adventure, and the return. So we chose to schedule our departure for the first of September. Little did we know then that the Park would be flooded in June to a catastrophic degree, damaging critical infrastructure and regions to the Park which we would want to visit. Still, as the 150th anniversary of the Park’s establishment by President Ulysses Grant in 1872, it was critical—to us—that we maintain our plan to visit and explore Yellowstone National Park in 2022.
And so we began planning, researching, and training. (Or at least, I began training… sort of.)
As we came closer and closer to our departure, anticipation and excitement rose, as expected. And then, at once, we came to September! I left North Carolina for Michigan, to pick up my friend and companion, on 02 September 2022 at 0700 and arrived in southern Michigan at roughly 1900. Pretty good time, I thought.
We unpacked the Jeep and test-packed out new Osprey Aether 65 litre backpacks, cutting weight and unnecessary kit as best we could. What we neglected to do, however, and what would come to weigh on us in the backcountry, was to dry-fit our packs to gauge how heavy they were without any contents. But that’s okay. We’ll get there…
The next morning, 03 September, we set off at approximately 0800 or 0900-ish and headed West towards the town of West Yellowstone, Montana. We stopped in Orland Park, Illinois at the REI to pick up a few last-minute essentials, and trekking poles for me, before heading off towards Montana.
After many states and many miles, we arrived at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands of North Dakota, where we stretched, got in a mini-hike, and took in the awe-inspiring scenery of the canyon(s).
From there, we barely stopped along the way through Montana and arrived—weary from the long, flat monotony of North Dakota and the desert of Montana—at Bozeman, Montana at roughly 1700 local time and checked in to a Motel 6 as a last-minute audible, giving ourselves one last chance for a real shower and beds before going into the backcountry.
I appreciated the magpies in the Motel 6 car park talking to each other and plotting their thefts of trinkets and food as they watched us unload the Jeep.
Then, on Monday morning, 05 September 2022, we travelled down to West Yellowstone, Montana to visit the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center and the West Yellowstone Backcountry Office, and then travelled back North towards Sky Rim, our first trail.
Sky Rim is a 20 mile, mostly ridge-walk trail in the North West corner of the Park, located in the rough-border area nestled in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest. It climbs from 6,744 feet to 9,884 feet across the first 9.9 miles and then back down to 6,744 feet. Coming from, basically, sea level this would be an incredibly difficult hike on its own. But keep in mind that we were backcountry camping, and carrying fully loaded, 65 litre packs on our backs. We made it to the WF2 campsite in about 2 hours at a pace of 39 minutes per mile (on average) and an elevation of 7,552 feet. And. It. Was. Difficult. We camped the night under a wide-open sky, reevaluated our ambitions, and decided to pack out the next morning, return to the Backcountry Office in West Yellowstone and talk to the Park Ranger, who had warned us to bring twice again as much extra water as we thought we’d need.
When we awoke the next morning, it was to the sound of moose at the tree-line surrounding our campsite, stripping bark from the trees. A young buck tried—and failed—twice to mount a cow he was traveling with just outside our tent, which was both hilarious to watch and a little unsettling as moose in rut can be incredibly territorial and aggressive. Still, it was amazing to see these magnificent and majestic creatures so close and so intimately. My only regret of the night was that I didn’t make time to shoot the stars with my camera, although the Moon hung low and bright for most of the night…
Upon our return to West Yellowstone, after a 1.5 hour hike back down the opening Daly Creek Trail to Sky Rim, Ranger Simmons, who had signed our permits the day before and welcomed us to the Park, told us, in no uncertain terms, “Well, you bit off the hardest thing in the Park!” on day one and we were “extremely wise” to turn ourselves around not feeling entirely confident of ourselves and abilities, especially given how the dangers of elevation sickness, the dryness of the air in this climate, and the unusual heat would all compound upon one another. I think, and perhaps I venture too far here, but I think Ranger Simmons was even proud of us for not pressing on and doing the smart thing of turning ourselves around.
Ranger Simmons helped us find an alternative campsite for the night, at OD1 Fairyfalls, to replace WF1 on Sky Rim. And so we set off again, into the Park, through the West Gate of Yellowstone National Park, towards Fairyfalls.
Fairyfalls was a bit underwhelming… which, as a naturalist and outdoorsman, is something I loathe hearing people say about any natural wonder or feature, animal or insect. How can something so magnificent and so magical, so wondrous, be “underwhelming?” But, after a three mile hike with a full pack and little sleep, I must tell you, I appreciated the exhaustion I was feeling more than the spectacular scenery.
The next morning, 7 September 2022, we packed our way out of OD1 and stopped by Old Faithful. After which we visited Grant Village for a little bit and then went on our next backcountry trailhead at Ice Lake to hike to Wolf Lake and settle in for the night. Along the way, we stopped at the Mud Dragon mud volcano and Sour Lake.
The hike to Wolf Lake was… arduous. The reviews of the trail from Ice Lake to Wolf Lake on All Trails recall a flat, easy, even boring hike. This is not the case. Especially not with a loaded pack! The trail from Ice Lake rambles through a new forest recovering from a fire—which is why there are so many “downed trees,” a common complaint on All Trails—and climbs and reclimbs some 440 feet over 4.5 miles. We passed several other campsites along the way, all of which we came to find out were closed—not in use—due to recent bear activity in the area. So we were a little concerned that our backcountry campsite permit was approved. But, ya know, caution to the wind, eh?
Upon our arrival at Wolf Lake, we set up camp and set a fire only to be quickly overcome by rain showers, so we snuffed the fire and scrambled to get the rain sleeves on our packs. And as soon as the rain came, it was gone! So we stoked the fire again and made some sandwiches for our dinner. Once we retired to the tent, the rain returned. That night I slept quite well, despite the elk bugling constantly and the coyotes howling. It was a really nice evening, actually.
Unfortunately, the next morning, 08 September 2022, I awoke to swollen, blistery, bloody toes—the result of having forded a creek the day before and not immediately changing into dry socks. ProTip: Always pack extra socks into the backcountry. Hiker’s Toe can be extremely painful, but also kind of dangerous to the affected extremities. If you keep hiking after developing Hiker’s Toe or Hikers Foot, even, the blisters can get worse and worse and burst and all kinds of damage to your skin, nerves, and boney bits can happen. Basically, once you’ve developed Hiker’s Toe/Foot, your hiking is over… unfortunately.
So, we hiked out in the morning after drying our kit as best we could manage and headed down to Yellowstone Lake to try to book a hotel room for the night. On the way, we learned that Elizabeth II had died during our return to the Jeep. We took a trip up towards Lamar Valley—which has been closed to the public since the June floods—and stopped at Slough Creek to check out the area before heading on to Lake Village.
Luckily, Yellowstone Lake Hotel, a marvellous, massive old hotel built in 1891, had a cabin available for us and we were able to recover a bit with a shower and a bed. My toes, continued to throb all night.
On Friday, 09 September 2022, we checked out a few stops along the Grand Loop Road including the Upper and Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River at Artist Point and the Hayden Valley, encountering some storms along the way, before trekking eastward to the exit of the Park and the Shoshone National Forest, bringing our Yellowstone Adventure™ to a close.
As we drove through South Dakota’s barrens, we were treated with snow atop the mountains of Big Horn National Forest, where there were only two runaway truck ramps. And we stopped at Matȟó Thípila or Bear Lodge (aka “Devil’s Tower National Monument”) only a few minutes after the Ranger Station closed for the evening. Of all the stops on our journey, I think I have the right of it when I say that Matȟó Thípila was the single most humbling experience. It’s so astounding, this perfect, enormous natural monolith. It was truly breathtaking.
And on our way back East, we’ve stopped at the Dignity statue in South Dakota and The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota—so I could take a photo of it and share it with a former coworker—where my Jeep broke down… So, now we’re camping (lol) in a hotel room, waiting for repairs.’’